The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S McCain after a collision, in Singapore waters on August 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

American neoconservatives’ speculation that China was involved in causing four US destroyers to collide with freighters in the South China Sea so far this year not only lacks credibility, but borders on silliness. Even the US Navy says there is no evidence that China hacked the destroyers’ state-of-the-art navigation systems.

Most analysts would suggest sloppy seamanship as a more credible explanation. If China did hack into the USS John S McCain‘s navigation system, what does that say about the US Navy’s capability?

Likely driver of the hacking theory

It could be argued that, like all past US neoconservative rhetoric on China, this might be just another attempt to fuel the “China threat” theory, potentially creating a lucrative business opportunity for the US arms industry, which already receives a sizable chunk of the nearly US$600 billion US defense budget. Hyping China’s cyber-hacking prowess could add even more billions of dollars to the revenues of large weapons development and manufacturing companies.

Another reason might be that the window of opportunity for  capitalizing on the “China threat” rhetoric could end sooner rather than later. Recent polls have found that more than half of young Americans (between 19 and 34 years of age) view China positively, compared with less than 35% of older white Americans (50 years and older). What this finding suggests is that decreasing numbers of Americans believe the neocons’ China narrative.

What’s more, fewer countries believe that China’s Communist regime is aggressive or belligerent. A recent Pew Poll in fact found that more nations (including close US allies) believe the United States is more threatening than China.

The Pew Poll numbers might explain why the anti-China crowd is increasingly creative, frequent and aggressive in pushing the government to “get tough” on China (and other countries that do not toe the US liberal-democracy line). They have to make hay while the sun still shines, maximizing their interests while they still can.

Why blame China?

War hawks and those harboring neoconservative views in the US government need a credible foe to justify the country’s huge defense budget of nearly $600 billion a year. China fits the profile because it is a communist regime with sufficient economic and military prowess to forge an independent foreign policy.

In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), China’s economy is bigger than that of the US, which have been estimated at more than $23 trillion and $18 trillion respectively this year. The International Monetary Fund and the US Central Intelligence Agency would argue that PPP is a more accurate measure than nominal exchange rate because the former represents real income whereas the latter indicates money income.

In any event, a nominal gross domestic product estimated at almost $12 trillion in 2016 means China can afford to build a strong and modern military.

China has become the new “enemy” because the implosion of the former Soviet Union did not bring the desired benefits or “Cold War dividends” that the US had hoped for. The plans of former presidents George H W Bush and Bill Clinton to redirect taxpayers’ money from defense spending to economic-enhancing projects encountered strong opposition.

The growing influence of the “Iron Triangle” – a triumvirate of large defense manufacturers, the Pentagon and Congress united by ideology and self-interest – was too strong to push back. This “group of three” opposed any government policies to alter the existing liberal-democratic industrial arrangement that encouraged large private enterprise to develop and produce arms. Not only would defense-spending cuts eat into the bottom line, but government interference is a violation of the free-enterprise principle.

To prevent that from happening, the triumvirate hired retired senior government and military officers to lobby their former subordinates to  sustain if not enhance existing defense-spending polices. Large US defense companies spread weapons production across the country, providing employment. Further, they shaped public opinion by recruiting the media and think-tank networks staffed by accomplished scholars, journalists and pundits.

Judging by their rhetoric and the public response to it, they have done a good job spreading the “China threat” theory.

Negative public opinion on China has been front and center in US elections. Politicians from both major political parties literally run over each other to get tough on China.

For example, George W Bush and Donald Trump castigated, respectively, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for cutting defense spending. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham complained that defense spending was too low, reducing the United States’ ability to push back Chinese or Russian “aggression”. The fear-mongering resonated with the public’s support for a strong military to defend US “national security”.

The Pentagon wanted to maintain the ability to fight two regional wars simultaneously. In this regard, serving senior officers wanted not only to keep current weapons systems, but add new ones.

It is therefore no surprise that defense-spending cuts were minimal at the end of the Cold War. Political will to do so was lacking or discouraged. For example, a politician voting for reducing defense spending in a state dependent on weapons development and production would not likely be elected or re-elected. No organizations, including the Pentagon, wanted to see their size and importance reduced.

What’s more, significant cuts in military spending in the immediate post-Cold War period did turn states that had depended on weapons development and production into economic basket cases. California and others registered high rates of unemployment, closing many businesses and creating economic and social uncertainties.

Pursuit of power persists, but not at any cost

Taking the analysis to its logical conclusion, the neoconservative speculation that China caused the McCain to collide with a freighter might be another attempt to increase the military budget. Spreading the China threat could guarantee additional funding for arms research, development and production.

However, the neoconservatives seem to understand that there is a limit to pursuing wealth and power at any cost, which explains why they did not push the US government into bombing China (or Russia) like they did in the Middle East and Africa. If they had done so, the US might have found Chinese and Russian missiles raining down on its own cities and killing millions of people, including hawks and neoconservatives.

Accumulating wealth and power at any cost only makes sense if one lives to enjoy them.

It might be for this reason that the US and China have not fallen into the Thucydides trap, in which an existing power attempts to maintain dominance over an emerging one that challenges it.

What’s more, increasing military spending during a prolonged period of fragile economic recovery would worsen the country’s economic woes. As the late president Dwight Eisenhower observed, “every dollar spent on weapons will be one dollar less to fund education, healthcare,  infrastructure and other socioeconomic-enhancing programs”.

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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